GMOs: a solution or subject of debate?

Biotechnology remains one of the most innovative technologies ever developed in the 20th Century, and it holds more promise in the 21st Century with the emergence of new tools such as gene editing. Despite its promise, however, the technology has been greeted with mixed feelings and it remains controversial in the public domain—even within the scientific community. Because of the various misconceptions and myths around the technology, its adoption has been delayed in many countries, particularly in Africa including Ghana. Benedicta Gyimaah Folley engages stakeholders to find out what can be done to increase public confidence in the technology in terms of its safety to both humans and animals, as well as on the environment.

Following the commercial release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), some 25 years ago, more countries across the world are cultivating genetically modified (GM) crops.

Currently, there are ten approved GM crops which are being cultivated in the world now. They are Corn, Alfafa, Soy beans, Summer Squash, Canola, Papaya, Sugar beets, Apples, Potatoes and Cotton

Developing nations including Sudan, Philippines, Honduras, India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, Paraguay, Bolivia, Sudan, Colombia, Chile, and Vietnam are said to be accounting for 53 per cent of the world’s acreage in GM crops.

Nigeria in 2020 also approved the commercial release of Bt cowpea, thus becoming the latest country in Africa to join the list of countries currently growing GM crops in the world.

Experts have predicted Africa as the region with the biggest potential to benefit from biotech crop adoption. This is because of the immense problems relating to poverty and malnutrition in the region. Thus, research projects on GM crops in Africa has been focused on traits particularly crucial for Africa.

In 2019, Africa had grown almost three million hectares of the world’s 190 million hectares of biotech crops grown. African countries such as South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan, Eswatini, Nigeria, Malawi, Ethiopia, and Kenya have all commercialised biotech crops.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has also indicated that conventional agricultural practices alone are inadequate to sustain global nutrition and food demand by 2050.

Many experts have predicted that most of Africa’s food problems could be addressed and at a faster pace with biotechnology—GMO, and that the technology could help to alleviate hunger and poverty in Africa as well as improve agricultural productivity and farmers’ livelihoods.

For instance, Ghanaian Plant Geneticist and Founding Director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) of the University of Ghana, Professor Eric Yirenkyi Danquah, says smallholder farmers in Africa need access to biotech crops more than farmers anywhere else in the world.

For him, the time has come for African governments to use available data on biotech solutions to take decisions that would improve livelihoods and lift millions of its people out of extreme hunger and poverty.

He expressed the concern that “anti-GMO activism has stalled the adoption of genetically engineered crops in many countries, contributing to the perpetuation of unsafe pesticide use, hunger and poverty.”

Why GMOs

Prof. Danquah said it was worrying that in spite of the enormous benefits in GMOs, only seven African countries Africa had approved GMOs. However, he noted, GMOs were under various stages of development in other 11 African countries, including Ghana.

“There is an urgent need for more food to be produced on less land with less chemicals,” he said, adding that “the development of improved varieties of our staple crops with high yields and resistance to the physical and biological stresses is absolutely necessary for a green revolution and food self-sufficiency in Ghana.”

He explained that science-based agriculture could preserve critical indigenous foods such as cowpea, millet, cassava, and sorghum, while reducing the environmental impacts of farming.

Prof Danquah explained that “on average, genetically engineered crops have cut chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by two per cent, boosted farmer profit by 38 per cent, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road.”

For him, farmers across the globe were struggling with devastating impacts of climate change, pointing out that disrupted rainfall pattern, drought, extreme weather events, pest infestations, plant diseases, crops losses, and hunger had made it necessary for African governments to adopt biotech solutions such as the GMO crops.

He explained that biotech innovations protected crops against insects and weeds, the two major challenges that mitigate against crop yields and lead to crop failure worldwide.

Prof Danquah expressed the hope that regulatory bodies will not allow anti-GMOs activities to delay the adoption of the technology in the country, saying “Let us not allow regulatory delays to prevent millions of farmers from accessing this life-saving technology.”

Dr Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw, a Senior Research Scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI), is one of the advocates for the adoption of GMOs in Ghana.

He believes that the development of more of climate stress free plants using GMO techniques can help fix the problem of climate change impacts on food crops and agriculture in Ghana and other parts of the world, particularly in Africa.

“The use of GMOs will help to fix gene(s) valued or desired traits in new plants as opposed to the others () that can only help remove genes,” he explained, adding “With this property, GMOs stand a better chance to assist mankind to fight the vagaries (inexplicable and unexpected situational change) of modern day food and agriculture challenges.”

For Dr Ampadu-Ameyaw, who is also the National Coordinator of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), said GM crops can be engineered to diseases and or pests or improve nutrition.

He expressed the concern that “Delays in releasing GM crops will cost the nation millions of money in addition to starving producers and consumers.”

He also called on the government to give farmers in the country a free choice to select and adopt crops developed through modern science in plant breeding including the GM technology, saying “Ghana needs a comprehensive science policy that puts science on the top of the agricultural transformation agenda.”

He noted that biotech solutions and innovations enable scientists to be able to solve agricultural problems that conventional farming methods were unable to do, saying “This can be achieved with precision and efficiency using plant biotechnologies and genomics as important tools.”

Misinformation

The Chairman of the Agric Chapter of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS), Professor Hans Adu-Dapaah, has urged government’s regulatory bodies to rely on available scientific data to take decisions on GMOs in Ghana.

He said the subject of GMOs should not be discussed with emotions but with scientific data, adding that people who discussed GMOs with emotions instead of scientific data tend to speculate falsehood about the technology which breeds fear among the general populace.

He said the GM technology is highly guided by scientific principles and therefore did not pose any threat to human and animal lives.

Prof. Adu-Dapaah was hopeful that when people understand the science behind GM, they will discard the hatred developed for the technology over the years.

He also expressed concern about the growing misinformation on GMO crops in the country, saying “It is 27 years since the first GMOs were released and I am not aware of a single credible food or feed problem on the safety of GMOs.”

In addition, he noted, “There is a very strong scientific consensus globally on GMOs just as scientists are on climate change.”

For Prof. Adu-Dapaah, it was worrying that in spite of the fact that scientific official reports on the safety and benefits of GMOs had been published by the World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, National Academic of Sciences (USA), Royal Society (UK), American Medical Association (USA), French Academy of Medicine, European Commission, US Food and Drugs Administration, Society of Toxicology, and Institute of Food Technology, some uninformed people still peddled falsehood about GMOs.

The proposed way forward

Proponents of biotechnology strongly advocate its application in agriculture to guarantee returns on investments, despite the current challenges, the weather presents. The technology is a proven scientific tool that addresses some of farmers’ most bothersome problems like inadequate water, insufficient soil nutrients and pests or insect invasions.

This implies that whereas, conventional crops will be easily destroyed in a state of inadequate water, little soil nutrients and pests invasion, a crop that has been genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) to withstand the impacts of these challenges, will thrive.

Before, they are release, GM crops are subjected to rigorous scientific processes including lengthy laboratory tests, confined field trials and environmental releases or farmer field trials and then onward to commercial releases, once they are certified by biosafety inspectors and approved by the Board of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA). Scientists (Plant breeders) advocates that the public should not see GMOs as a subject of debate or controversy, but a solution to agricultural problems of the world today.

By Benedicta Gyimaah Folley

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